Feb 11 2011

Mark Weisbrot on Haiti elections, Vijay Prashad on Egypt and the U.S.


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This week on CounterSpin: Why did Hillary Clinton jump on a plane to Haiti on January 30th in the middle of a major diplomatic crisis caused by the Egyptian uprising? She was going to Haiti because Washington is worried that U.S. efforts to deliver a Haitian president to its liking are threatened by democracy. It has not been easy to follow this story in the corporate media, but Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research will bring up to date on Haiti.

Also on the show: How do you present decades of support for a strongman as an abiding desire for democracy? That’s one of the questions elite US media seem to be wrestling with, as they continue to chase events in Egypt. US media consumers unfamiliar with Egypt’s history might be forgiven for needing help decoding analysis of the evolving popular uprising from a press corps with its own history of fealty to official storylines. We’ll hear from Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College.

That’s coming up but first as usual we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

— The uprising in Egypt has produced some great on the scene reporting—and some depressing Beltway chin-stroking that leaves you to question if some pundits know what the word ‘democracy’ means. Time’s Joe Klein wondered, first of all, “How on earth do we get saddled with such creepy clients as Karzai and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, over and over again?” Yeah, how do they get there? Part of the problem, as Klein figures it, is that Arab democracy keeps giving power to the wrong people—in his words, ‘the tangible fruits of the Freedom Agenda turned out to be mostly rotten.’ Klein winds up saying the best bet is to hand power over to the Egyptian military. That point was seconded by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer on February 4, who hoped that Egyptian democracy “does not devolve to those who believe in one man, one vote, one time.” For the record, that phrase was common among apologists for apartheid South Africa.

–The White House sent veteran diplomat Frank Wisner to talk to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. But Wisner has a day job at Patton Boggs, a legal/lobbying firm that boasts about its long history with Egyptian government and corporations. These glaring conflicts might help explain why Wisner created a mini-scandal over the February 4th weekend when he pronounced—allegedly without White House permission—that Mubarak should stay in power. That got plenty of press, but the details of Winser Patton Boggs link has not.

Reporter Pratap Chatterjee was on the story on February 4, writing for Inter Press Service about the firm’s 20 year history with the Mubarak regime. The story was advanced by Robert Fisk of the London Independent on February 7. He elaborated on Wisner’s conflicts, noting that “The vast network of companies with family connections to Mubarak’s regime is, of course, one of the targets of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt.”

Not so fast, though. New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg stepped in to say that Fisk was incorrect. Her source for the debunking was a Patton Boggs official who told her that Patton Boggs did work for corporate clients in Egypt, but said it hadn’t worked for the government since the mid-1990s, “except for briefly last year.”

OK. So as the paper of record sees it, by reporting that Wisner’s firm worked for the Egyptian government and corporations, Fisk was incorrect, because the company works for Egyptian corporations, but hasn’t worked for the Egyptian government in the past several months. Nothing to see here, folks.

— The Los Angeles Times’ investigation that purported to rate LA teachers’ effectiveness based on value-added research methods faced a storm of criticism, including on this show, since even the researchers who provided the data underscored that it should not be presented as the Times did as the sole or preeminent measure of teachers’ work. Now the National Education Policy Center has weighed in, concluding that the research was “demonstrably inadequate to support the published rankings.” That finding was reported February 8th in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. See if you can guess which was the Times’ headline: Was it “Researchers Fault L.A. Times Methods in Analysis of California Teachers” or “Separate Study Confirms Many Los Angeles Times Findings on Teacher Effectiveness”? Sorry, there’s no prize.

–On February 5, the Associated Press ran a story about an American held in Cuba on espionage charges:

“Prosecutors are charging jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross with ‘acts against the integrity and independence’ of Cuba and requesting a 20-year prison term, state news media reported Friday, dimming hopes he would be allowed to go home soon.”

Then, without a hint of irony, AP reported the official U.S. response to the story, quoting Gloria Berbena the spokeswoman for the U.S. Interests Section in Havana saying that Gross’s “imprisonment without charges for more than a year is contrary to all international human-rights obligations.'”

It’s not a bad point, but the AP might have asked Berbena how the US position squares with the fact that elsewhere on Cuba the U.S. has held hundreds of detainees for years, without charge, “contrary to all international human-rights obligations.” But that might be considered impolite.

— Finally — Elite media insist that it’s not them, it’s regular Americans who are up in arms about the deficit; a recent New York Times article claimed citizens are “near unanimous in calling deficits a problem.” The conversation then generally moves on to what this or that politician thinks is the way to reduce the deficit, which things as they, are 9 times out of 10 it involves cutting Social Security benefits. If you notice how it goes from public desires to politicians’ preferred solutions, you won’t be surprised to learn that the step being skipped is an important one.

Some folks at the University of Maryland asked Americans how they would fix the deficit, and the answers were interesting. The largest cuts respondents favored, say the Program for Public Consultation, included those to defense, intelligence, military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and the federal highway system — all of which were cut by majorities.

On the revenue generating side, the group found, majorities called for increasing taxes on incomes over $100,000 by 5% or more and increased them by 10% or more for incomes over $500,000. A sales tax was rejected by 58 percent of respondents.

What these responses have in common of course is that they fall well outside the normal range of corporate media conversation, underscoring that whatever that conversation’s about, it’s not about what most Americans want.

Mark Weisbrot

CS: On January 30, with official Washington riveted by the unfolding Egyptian uprising, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on several Sunday morning News shows to talk about the “crisis”– before jumping on a plane to Haiti. Clinton was traveling to Haiti to talk about its presidential elections, a subject in which Washington has taken a keen interest and active role. Mark Weisbrot joins us to talk about the Haitian elections. Mark is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC, he has written several columns for London’s Guardian newspaper about Haiti.

Welcome back to CounterSpin Mark Weisbrot!

MW: Thanks, great to be back.

CS: Let’s go back to the beginning of Haiti’s current election cycle. Could you talk about the role the US and its allies including France have played in the process, beginning with the official exclusion of country’s most popular party?

MW: Well yes the most popular party, which is Fanmi Lavalas, was excluded from the elections November 28th— as they were also excluded 2009 from the parliamentary election, and in that election in 2009 there was a boycott of over 90% of voters. This time about 3/4ths of voters did not vote. This is all under pressure from the United States, Canada and France which don’t want this party involved and acted together to overthrow the government of President Aristide in 2004, which of course Fanmi Lavalas is his party. So this is all a continuing story, which really goes back to the first overthrow of Aristide in 1991, which was also supported by the US government.

CS: You said in this last election about 75% of people stayed away from the polls. How does that compare to the last time that Lavalas was allowed into the election?

MW: Well the last time they were really allowed in was in 2000, and even in the parliamentary election in that year, with no president, there was an over 60% turnout. So Haitians will vote even when there’s bullets flying, but they won’t vote so much when they don’t see a choice.

CS: Well, with the most popular party excluded from the election it doesn’t seem too harsh to say that the US and its allies have applied pressure to have the elections rigged, and rigged at more than one stage.

MW: Yes, the story does get worse because even in that election with only a quarter of people voting, then the US (using the Organization of American States as an instrument) forced Haiti to change the results of the first round of the election. In other words, the government candidate Jude Celestin had come in second and qualified for the run-off, and the OAS did a report saying that he should be third and not in the run-off, and that gives us an election on March 20 with just two right-wing candidates. Which is very odd for Haiti, it’s not a right wing country—people have never voted willingly for a right wing government. The thing is, the United States used all kinds of pressure; they threatened to cut off aid to the country, they cancelled the visas of people in the government, there were even reports—quite credible ones—from journalism professor Amy Wilentz in the LA Times saying that President Pr val was being threatened with being thrown out of the country, like they did to President Aristide in 2004. And so there were enormous threats to change the results of the election, and I should say also that the OAS had no statistical or factual basis for changing the results of the election. And it turns out that as we speak right now, 4 out of the 8 members Haiti’s electoral commission didn’t sign off on the result, and so it’s not clear that this election has any legal validity, either.

CS: In the midst of all that’s happening in Haiti’s election, there is also the story of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide’s possible return to Haiti. I wonder if you could talk about the flurry of articles—in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, for instance—equating in terms of odiousness Aristide’s possible return, with the return to Haiti a few weeks ago of Baby Doc, the former Haitian dictator?

MW: Well this is where you’re going to see a massive propaganda campaign against Aristide. If you look at the actual numbers, you know, Peter Hallward has a book, and looked at all the available numbers on political murders in the various regimes of Haiti and for the Duvalier dictatorships, you have about 50,000 from 1957-1986. After the US-sponsored coup in 1991, and there our government also supported the death squads, about 4,000 people were murdered. After the latest coup in 2004 which was completely organized by the US and its allies, some 3,000 or 4,000 people were killed. During Aristide’s time there (?) in office, from 2001 to 2004, there were somewhere between 10 and 30 political murders. And these can’t even really be linked to the government necessarily. So the idea is completely Orwellian, the idea that Aristide was some kind of a dictator. What he really did was he got rid of more than 98% of the political violence in the country by abolishing the army and what was called the “section chief” system, which was a system of 500 section chiefs, mainly in the countryside, that terrorized the population. Those were the main sources of political violence, that is why Washington has really not forgiven Aristide for doing this, and so they turned it completely upside-down and made him look like he was the purveyor of violence.

CS: How have you seen US press coverage of the election so far?

MW: It’s better than usual in that they did recognize some of the problems with the election and also with the OAS report. They didn’t really get into the details of the OAS report, but they did recognize that this was inordinate pressure being applied to the government, they did have some reports on that. But on the other hand overall, I think if you weren’t following this issue closely, you wouldn’t know that this was really an illegitimate election. I think the biggest failure is given that the OAS was used by the U.S. to force a change in the results, I think the biggest failure was not actually showing what the OAS actually did in any detail. And I think probably more importantly, because very few people read the news articles, there are many many more people, including members of Congress and their staff, who read the editorials and are influenced by the editorials. If you look at the editorial position of the major newspapers on this election, it was pretty bad. I mean, considering what was done, somebody should have defended the right of Haitians to have a free and fair election.

CS: Do you think it’s fair to say that Hillary Clinton went to Haiti because she was afraid that Haitian democracy was threatening the US and their allies efforts to ensure that a Haitian president came into office that was to their liking?

MW: I think that’s exactly it. She went there for two reasons: one, to again increase pressure on the Haitian government to accept the OAS rewriting the result of the first round of the presidential election, which I have to emphasize is really unprecedented, to change the result of an election without a recount. I mean, we just met with the head of the OAS electoral mission in Haiti and he’s been through many elections—he couldn’t even think of another case where that’s even happened. So she pressured them on that, and she put pressure on them not to allow Aristide back in the country. We can infer that from the statements of the US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley yesterday.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Marc Weisbrot of the Center for Economic & Policy Research. You can read his work on Haiti in the Guardian or at CEPR.net. Thanks again for joining us on CounterSpin, Mark Weisbrot!

Vijay Prashad

CS: Journalists have a choice in talking about the uprising in Egypt: present each White House diplomatic statement at face value, even if these contradict known history, or one another – or delve into what evidence suggests are the real US interests and goals in the region, even if these are something other than altruistic and indeed give the lie to official pronouncements. The choice media make has a lot to do with how honestly informed the public is and what they’re willing to support. Joining us now to discuss what seems to be the media storyline on Egypt and how we might decode or interpret it, is Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College in Connecticut and author most recently of “The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World.” Welcome to CounterSpin, Vijay Prashad!

CS: We’ve talked about how hard it is to parse the media line on the Egyptian uprising, as expressed in, for example, the L.A. Times editorial (1/28) that said that: “As an ally and benefactor, the United States has helped prop up the 82-year-old strongman [Hosni Mubarak] since he took power 30 years ago, and today it is in a unique position to impress upon him the importance of democracy.” That strange logic may reflect the sort of talk that comes from the White House, but it doesn’t make straightforward sense. What are, as you see it, the significant US government ‘goals’ or ‘interests’ in Egypt as they relate to this popular upheaval?

VP: Well there are two basic objectives in the US policy with Egypt. The first policy is to ensure that Egypt is a very active and a loyal partner in the war against terrorism. And in that capacity Egypt has carried water for the United States in the Arab League, Egypt is of course the destination of choice for extraordinary rendition, in other words the so called “terror suspects” brought to be tortured. Evidence provided in that torture then goes to the CIA, so the first main angle for the United States is to ensure that Egypt is a close friend and ally on the war on terror. The second basic objective is to ensure that Egypt will maintain the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. That is an absolutely essential element which the media has talked about almost not at all. It’s because of that peace agreement that Israel has been able to act against the Palestinians and against Lebanon without any fear of symmetrical reprisal. The only military force capable of matching Israel in the region is Egypt. So having Egypt, in a sense, be offline is very important for the interests of the US. These are the two basic policy objectives, that idea of democracy that’s there in the editorial is almost confusing, because democracy is not really the goal of American foreign policy. American foreign policy goals are enunciated by another word—and that is stability. Democracy is what I consider to be the long-term objective, and as John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long term we’ll all be dead.” The short term objective is stability, and that is what the Obama administration is after.

CS: Well this seems like very much of a piece with that, this idea in general that what the US does, has done or can do, is ‘help our dictatorial friends toward democratic change’.

VP: Exactly. I mean it’s a question again of what one means by democratic change. We supported Manuel Noriega for many years, and then went in saying he’s a criminal, removed him, and created democracy, as it were, in Panama. That democracy said “We don’t want the United States to control the Panama Canal any longer.” And so then we get angry with the democrats. The same thing happened in Israel and Palestine. When we put pressure in the occupied area of Gaza for an election, Hamas comes to power, we don’t like them—those are bad democrats. Then there are good stable leaders, like the royal family of Saudi Arabia, where—interestingly enough— the Obama administration has decided to consult with the Saudis about the democratic transition in Egypt. I mean, to me, that is like talking to a vegetarian about how to make a meat curry. It seems utterly absurd. But that is indeed what they’ve been doing and the press reports that with a straight face.

CS: It’s possible that Mubarak may be stepping down as we record this show on February 10. That is of course, a primary thing protesters have been calling for. That said, what should we know about Omar Suleiman?

VP: Well it’s true that the protestors called for the removal of Mubarak, but in a sense they were also calling for the removal of Mubarak’s regime. Omar Suleiman and the circle around Mubarak are all men of the military. All of them have been generals, Mubarak himself was a leader of the Air Force before he entered civilian clothing. Omar Suleiman in the early 1990s was plucked away from the military and brought into the administration to head internal security. And the two words “internal security,” if you live in most of the world, are the two most chilling words you could hear. “Internal security” essentially means the repression of the population. And he was an expert at that. He’s very very paranoid about Iran, he has a reputation of not only increasing the prisons and torture inside Egypt– in fact one allegation is that Omar Suleiman personally tortured a terror suspect. So he’s got a lot of blood on his hands. Now, the other interesting thing about Omar Suleiman is that—and this, by the way, is thanks to WikiLeaks, let nobody say that everything came out on WikiLeaks was already known, because that is really to make WikiLeaks’ revelations banal, and not relevant anymore. In fact, the revelations have demonstrated that both Tel Aviv (that is, the Israelis) and the United States have for a very long time, for the past 6-7 years, wanted Omar Suleiman to take over the reins of government in Egypt. This is not the change that the protestors in Tahrir Square are clamoring for.

CS: Finally U.S. corporate media tend to have, with important exceptions, a very elitist take on so-called ‘leaderless’ protest, you see it in their obsession with describing the protestors’ clothes or in belittling their concerns as a ‘laundry list’ or unrealistic. The message underscored is that real change comes from important grown ups sitting in a room, and marching in the street is childish and ultimately destructive.

VP: Right. Well, let me put it in two different ways. The first is that that interpretation that the U.S. has of protestors is also very selectively applied. So when, for instance the revolutions from below broke out in Eastern Europe recently, we didn’t see the American media talking about how these were leaderless clueless people. They immediately said this was a popular uprising against essentially Russian influence in Eastern Europe. And then there was no anxiety about the people on the streets, ‘Where will there be stability?’ And the reason there was no anxiety was that the instability was ultimately against Russia rather than against the United States. And any new stability that emerges might favor US power. So there’s a very selective use of the narrative of popular uprisings being unstable. In this case, it is indeed not unstable, there are many, many indications of ‘from below’ attempts to construct new political platforms, there are five important political parties, opposition parties that are in negotiation, they are acting. Very importantly, also in Tahrir Square and in other places people have been trying to construct in the middle of the protest a charter of demands, they are using megaphones to talk about “this is a demand, what do you think?” and by acclimation people say yes or no. So there are multiple ways in which new demands are emerging from below. And I think this has been utterly neglected in the media.

VP: Now finally, on the point of chaos from below and the selective talking about the chaos from below is this fear of the Muslim Brotherhood. I find this is very interesting, that because there is a kind of hydraulic understanding of power, if some power goes other power must come, and this fear that the Muslim Brotherhood is going to fill the entire space demonstrates a lack of understanding that each of the countries in the Middle East are different from each other. That is, that Iran is not identical to Egypt, and it’s worthwhile to study the way in which Islam functions in different societies, its institutional capacity, etc. Of course there is no time and energy invested in this careful analysis, and we are left in the end with sort-of half sentences.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College. You can read some of his work at counterpunch.org.